By Victoria Benefield, Medill, Immigrant Connect                                                        June 2021

Listen to Victoria Benefield’s podcast: Biden introduced community sponsorship to resettle refugees. How’s that going?


HEBA KALAJI: The travel ban has been lifted. So I’m really, really, really hoping that I can get my parents vaccinated against COVID, and then hopefully apply for a visa and maybe see them. It’s not like it’s granted, but at least you have that opportunity. But before with a travel ban, it’s like a thick wall in front of you, you’re not even allowed to have that hope.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: I’m Victoria Benefield, reporting for Immigrant Connect. Today I’m looking at refugee and asylum seeker resettlement in the Biden era. You just heard from Heba Kalaji, an asylum seeker from Syria, who first arrived in America in 2017 when Trump was president. She managed to enter the country during a brief suspension of the Muslim travel ban, but has since been waiting for her asylum case to be processed. She cannot leave the U.S., and, due to the travel ban, her parents could not enter the U.S. It’s been over three years since she’s seen her family. But now, with Biden as president and the travel ban lifted, she’s hoping that her asylum case will be resolved sooner rather than later and that they will be able to reunite. She’s not alone in this hope; many refugees and asylum seekers are excited for what’s to come during the next four years. On February 4, 2021, Biden issued an executive order that promised to rebuild and expand the refugee admissions system with an emphasis on working with community organizations. But what does the process look like now?

For refugees, it all starts with registration and an interview with the UN, who decides whether or not to grant refugee status to an individual. If an individual is granted refugee status and referred to the U.S., they undergo multiple interviews, background checks, fingerprint scans, and medical screenings. After this thorough vetting process, the refugee is matched with one of nine national resettlement agencies, which together operate more than 300 offices across the country. The International Organization for Migration funds the refugee’s travel to their American destination [AUDIO OF PLANE LANDING], and, from there, the resettlement agency takes over. The entire process, from initial approval by the UN to arrival in the US, takes, on average, two years– although it can be much longer for some refugees.

The asylum process is slightly different; people apply for asylum once they are already in the U.S. But much like refugees, asylum seekers go through a series of background checks, fingerprint scans, and an interview. This process can take anywhere from six months to several years, like in Heba’s case.

For both refugees and asylum seekers, the transition to life in the U.S. is yet another challenge. Resettlement agencies are key to this transition. During the first few months after a refugee’s arrival in America, agencies will help the individual or family find jobs, enroll children in school, get social security cards, and connect them to language classes. Community organizations also play an important role, providing more specific and long-term support, such as after-school programs, citizenship classes, and free meals.

But, in 2017, this entire process nearly shuttered to a halt. On Jan. 27, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order that stopped all refugee admission for 90 days, and reduced the cap on refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000. The limit steadily decreased. By 2020, Trump announced a limit of 15,000 for the 2020 to 2021 fiscal year, which ends in September. He also passed the Muslim travel ban, which made it especially difficult for refugees from several countries in the Middle East to enter the U.S. Over these four years, more than 100 resettlement offices closed, and many employees were laid off, simply because there weren’t enough refugees for them to work with. These drastic changes wrought havoc for the resettlement community, according to Alisa Roadcup, the president of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Refugee Coalition.

ALISA ROADCUP: The refugee services landscape has been so hard hit with widespread funding cuts, high rates of staff burnout, turnover, which then resulted in a decrease in the quality of programmatic delivery. But also, it resulted in a compromise of access to opportunities and services for refugees.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: President Joe Biden’s arrival in office appeared to signal a sharp reversal from Trump’s refugee policies, especially with his campaign promises and his February executive order about rebuilding the refugee system. But, on April 16, Biden announced that his administration would maintain the 15,000-refugee limit set by Trump for the fiscal year that lasts until September. Lauren West, the development and communications director at Syrian Community Network in Chicago, said that this decision was a huge blow to refugees planning to move to the U.S.

LAUREN WEST: There were families who were in the pipeline to be resettled. They showed up at the airport, had their tickets, thought they were going to get there, and then no longer could come. The way that the resettlement process works, there’s a lot of different background checks that have to happen. And they don’t always align in terms of when they happen and their expiration date. And so a lot of families and individuals that were scheduled to be resettled in that two month, three month period when he didn’t enact anything, now have to start the process over again.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Biden’s decision unleashed a wave of outrage from Democratic politicians and advocacy groups. But just a couple of weeks after announcing the 15,000-person cap, Biden reversed his policy and upped the limit to 62,500. West expressed skepticism about the change.

LAUREN WEST: They made it very clear that that’s actually not a feasible goal. So while we’re glad that the Biden administration has made that announcement, and is pledging to increase the next year’s determination to 125,000, we really just want to still hold them accountable to that pledge, and not allow them to use these excuses that either the system still needs to be rebuilt, or that because of people coming in at our southern border, we can’t deviate funds or energy to refugee resettlement.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Suzanne Sahloul, the founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network, argues that the country is in fact ready to admit a high number of refugees.

SUZANNE SAHLOUL: How hard is it to put people on a flight who have already been approved? They were approved a few years ago, but because of Trump administration policies, they were not able to be processed to come to the United States. Just bring those people. Communities are waiting. You have organizations who can do the work. So why are you putting so many hurdles? There were over 70 flights cancelled between February and March. We’re putting a lot of red tape and not understanding that there are people who are very desperate. And it could make a difference in a child’s life to go to school or not to go to school, a difference in someone receiving medical help than not receiving medical help. These are critical decisions that affect people’s lives forever.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: But, so far, America has not come close to fulfilling the 62,500-person cap. As of April 30, the U.S. had admitted only 2,344 refugees this year. Amy Slaughter, the senior advisor at RefugePoint, told me that UNHCR, the organization that refers refugees to countries to be resettled, may be overwhelmed by the higher limit. And Alisa Roadcup says that resettlement agencies will likely need time to recuperate from the Trump era.

ALISA ROADCUP: There already was quite a strong fracturing of the refugee resettlement organizations here in the United States over the last few years with talent drain. So I think there’s going to be sort of a learning curve and a staffing curve in terms of people getting up to speed again.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Lauren West says that she expects resettlement agencies to require a lot of assistance from organizations like the Syrian Community Network. Normally, resettlement agencies will refer individuals to the Syrian Community Network after six to nine months of working with them, but recently, they’ve been referring them as early as three months into the resettlement process. Suzanne Sahloul says that further changes will depend on just how quickly refugees are admitted to the U.S. and if resettlement agencies have the capacity to handle them.

SUZANNE SAHLOUL: If they become more busy, then they will reach out to us much sooner. But if it’s just a steady flow of people, and there’s not too much chaos, it’ll be fine. Because in 2016, when President Obama raised the numbers, because of all the advocacy that was happening, there was so much chaos, and there were so many people coming in, and there were barely any apartments. Some families ended up in hotels. So that’s why the nature of our relationships changed, it became like, okay, here’s this family, this is another family, another family, so it was kind of really fast.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Changes can also depend on how Biden decides to rework the refugee resettlement process. In his executive order, he pledged to expand “the use of community sponsorship and co-sponsorship models by refugee resettlement agencies” and to enter “into new public-private partnerships.” We won’t know exactly what this looks like until at least June 4, but Amy Slaughter believes that it will likely involve more NGOs working overseas with UNHCR to identify and refer refugees. Suzanne Sahloul hopes that Biden will provide more support to community groups that focus on serving a single ethnic community.

SUZANNE SAHLOUL: Increased support for ethnic groups, that’s something we don’t have. Because the resettlement agencies, yes, they bring on people and all that, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones who kind of carry the load for the families. And we stay with them in the long term. We’re the cultural and the linguistic organization. We understand where they’re coming from, we’ve become a big family. And so we kind of carry on the work in the long term.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: For Heba Kalaji, the Syrian Community Network was especially important for her transition to the local community because they have staffers who speak Arabic.

HEBA KALAJI: When you’re telling a personal story or a disaster that you’ve been through, or a struggle, it’s sometimes important for you to feel that the person you’re talking to is listening to your own words, not just like, a third party sitting in the middle of the room out of nowhere, and translating those stuff.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: The Syrian Community Network was able to help Heba get a job, a service which RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency in Chicago, could not provide.

HEBA KALAJI: I reached out to them, I told them that I had applied for asylum, but I don’t know how to move forward from that. They told me that they would only help people who applied for asylum through their organization. So they weren’t really able to help me much. I also asked them for help for, like, finding a job and things like that. But I don’t think I got much help from that organization.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: In at least Heba’s case, a community organization was able to assist someone who needed help in a way that a resettlement agency could not. There are still a lot of questions surrounding how refugee resettlement might change in the upcoming years. But Amy Slaughter says that everybody in the field is trying to capitalize on the Biden presidency and “embed some improvements into the system that will outlast this administration.” Alisa Roadcup is thrilled by the renewed focus on community organizations.

ALISA ROADCUP: I do think that there will be a really exciting sort of reignition of the sector, and that there will be more creativity, more collaboration, more resources around supporting refugees. We are experiencing that the United States is rising up again in its role as a leader in terms of global refugee resettlement, and fulfilling our human rights mandates that have really marked us as a country for so, so long.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: As for Heba, the asylum seeker from Syria, the future is unclear, but she is excited by what a Biden presidency could mean for her and other refugees and asylum seekers like her.

 HEBA KALAJI: I did feel like President Biden was saying in his speeches that he’s more welcoming, more loving for refugees. So I thought to myself, yeah, he’ll probably implement some changes that will definitely affect my case. It hasn’t been a long time since he became president. And unfortunately, we’re going through a pandemic. And it’s a major crisis that has caused the entire world major, major costs. Things have to be prioritized. But I am hopeful.